Is The Concept Of The Dirty Old Man As Harmless As We Think It Is?
Updated: Feb 18
For the most part, everyone knows one; he’s the Uncle, the friend's father, the neighbor, the older man on the bus, the in-law and he’s almost always the center of an off-color joke. But is he actually that harmless?
We’re in the midst of the #Metoo movement and even if we don’t want to be aware of what’s going on you’d have to live under a rock not know. Even though we are becoming more entuned to the concepts of consent, and what it means, we still seem to find the idea of the “dirty old man” to be funny.
At what point do we decide someone who exhibits what we consider to be at best, inappropriate behavior and at worst, predatory behavior; to be harmless? Should we? Is there an age that someone stops being a victim of the old man and instead becomes “harmless” comic fodder?
Riddle Me This - A seven-year-old who gets her butt pinched by a seventy-year-old, that sound wrong, correct? But does it stop being wrong when the seventy-year-old pinches the butt of a 35-year woman? Does this become funny and something that should be brushed off? When does a man become old enough to be considered comical as opposed to, criminal? Is it 60, 70, or 80? Or does it depend on whether he has the ability to negatively affect your life? Does this move him out of the cute and harmless category to a predator?
I wonder this a lot. I have no answers only my opinions but let’s explore it.
Before I go any further, I need to make note that even though I am touching on the long-standing and comedically used concept of the dirty old man, this is not reserved just for the elderly man. Woman are perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, just like men. In some instances, the harm they bring is far more devastating than what a man brings simply because we refuse to see women as predatory in nature. We make fun of the men who come forward, blow off the pleas of the young boys who beg us to examine their trauma. Women are NOT exempt from this conversation, I am merely focusing on the men because we, in this country, have turned the idea of old men sexually assaulting women into comedy gold and I want to shine a light on it.
Bottom Line – Women perpetrate sexual assaults just like men do and they should never be excused simply because we refuse to see it. (I will explore that topic soon)
What’s the difference between the “dirty old man” and the scary predator? –
This is a trick question, there is no difference.
The problem is we seem to think that they are separate entities. When in reality we do a disservice to victims by making them feel that they’re the ones causing the problem.
We do it all the time, we brush off the inappropriate actions of old men. We legitimize it by making jokes. Even when someone steps forward we brush it off by saying “oh that’s just how it was back in his day” “Oh he’s harmless”. But is he truly harmless?
Any unwanted touch is never harmless and by brushing off someone’s concerns you tell them that at some point as a man ages he is no longer responsible for his behavior. He’s too old, too feeble to truly be aware of what he’s doing. This, in turn, tells the victim of his advances, that they are being rude and disrespectful by putting such a label on someone so infirmed.
We are constantly telling women that there is a difference between the two. That some men, based upon their age are off the hook for their actions. We put the burden of avoiding such advances on the women. And we don’t seem to hold ourselves complicit in the cover-up.
The media has done a lot to promote the comedy spin of the sexual advances from old men. They too make it seems as if old Walter grabbing and rubbing your knee is just something that old men do, and that your personal space is theirs for the taking.
We even push back when women complain. She’s made to feel responsible for hurting the mans' feeling but rejecting his “harmless” advances.
It’s the idea that he’s harmless because he’s old that makes this something ripe for comedic fodder. But is this the message that we want to send to our women, our girls? The idea that because he is old and fragile his sexual touches aren’t sexual in nature but rather funny and perhaps flattering?
Why do we have such a hard time pinning the predator label on the elderly? -
I believe that this is such a difficult thing because after a certain age we stop seeing the elderly as sexual. So, that when they do exhibit anything that could be seen as sexual behavior we applaud them for being alive and vibrant.
The concept of aging hits all of us hard and when we see the older generation exhibiting what we consider to be signs of youth we feel better about our aging process. In turn, we encourage their actions and choose to look away when it crosses over to becoming sexually criminal.
Think about it………….. picture an 80-year-old man. He’s in his house, his home health care aid is about to start for the first time. He’s sitting in his favorite lounge chair giggling to himself, he can’t stop thinking about what he’s got planned. As she walks through the door, she calls out “Good morning Mr. Paulson, my name is Rebecca the agency sent me here to help you”. As she walks through the door he stands up pulls the drawstring to his sweats and the pants fall down. They’re now are around his ankles, he has a shit-eating grin on his face and Rebecca gets to see Mr. Paulson in all of his naked glory.
Funny huh? A silly harmless image, not mean to cause distress just mean to be silly. The problem is we only find it funny because we no longer see Mr. Paulson as a sexual being anymore. But that’s not true! If someone still enjoys the idea, the concept of sex, he’s a sexual being.
Let’s take the same scenario and tweak it a little.
Think about it…….picture a 50-year-old man. He’s in his house, his 30-year-old neighbor is coming over to bring him the bowl she borrowed a week ago. He’s sitting in his favorite lounge chair giggling to himself, can’t stop thinking about what he’s got planned. As she walks through the door, she calls out “Good morning Paul, it’s me, Rebecca, I wanted to return the dish I borrowed”. As she walks through the door he stands up pulls the drawstring to his sweats and pants fall down. His sweats are around his ankles, he has a shit-eating grin on his face and Rebecca gets to see Paul in all of his naked glory.
Is that image just as funny as old Mr. Paulson? I didn’t think so. They are both exhibiting predatory behavior. The difference is, we only legitimize the neighbors' feelings because we correlate Paul’s ability to physically subdue his victim with being a sexual predator. We delegitimize Mr. Paulson because we have decided that his inability to physically overtake Rebeca and what we perceive as his lack of sexual prowess; makes his actions silly and childish.
But both of these men have committed sexually deviant acts. At what point would we think Mr. Paulson crossed the line? Would he have to try to put his hand inside Rebecca’s blouse? Or would it still be silly if he grabbed her ass, maybe tried to kiss her? Where’s the line?
There is no line in this situation that would move the needle from unsolicited sexual advance to harmless behavior and this is what we need to understand. Sexual assault of any kind from ANYONE is never okay. And every time we laugh the behavior off, we tell the person who was assaulted, that it didn’t matter because we thought it was funny and harmless.
What do we do to stop it? –
Sometimes complex problems have simple solutions………… Call them out on their shit!
When they exhibit such behavior tell them NO, like seriously say no. If you are uncomfortable find someone who can help. If It’s a family member, find someone who's willing to stand up for you. If it’s a co-worker go to HR and if they don’t take it seriously then go to the state labor board. If it’s a random person on the street, get loud. Make them uncomfortable. Let those around them know exactly what they have in mind because more often than not, you weren’t the first and you won’t be the last.
I’m About To Say Something That Might Make Some Of You Mad (let me know and we can chat about it)
Stop worrying about their feelings and their elderliness. They are not fragile, the problem is that for a very long time they hadn’t been called out on their behavior and if they had it wasn’t loud enough to warn others. I get it, no one wants to see an elderly person cry, see them sad or disappointed but I am not willing to compromise my mental and physical health to not make someone else uncomfortable.
We infantilize the elderly and unconsciously strip them the responsibility they have for their own behavior. Instead, we transfer the burden of their faults on to ourselves, we take the idea of honoring the elderly to extremes and give them free passes to lose control of basic decency.
- Let the concept of the dirty old person die, it’s not cute, and it very often causes young girls to find themselves in unwanted contact with people simply because their age makes us too uncomfortable to say anything -